Refugee representation in film and media often struggles with how best to allow the refugee to be the mouthpiece of their own narrative. But in Flee, Danish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen teams up with old friend Amin Nawabi – a chosen pseudonym – to centralise Amin’s account of refugeehood. Disclosed in interviews and adapted into vivid animation, Amin’s story traces his flight from Afghanistan in the 1980s to his various new homes: Russia, Estonia and Denmark, where he finally appears “settled” in a pastoral idyll with a loving partner.
The interviews, as the skeleton of the film, are Amin’s first admissions of his trials – even when kept private, documenting his story in artform was always tantamount. Through animation, Amin and Rasmussen use an exploratory artform to bring their audience into proximity with the plight of Afghan refugees.
With Riz Ahmed on the team of executive producers, it is no wonder that Flee is brought to screen with such sensitivity. Ahmed addressed the House of Commons in his Diversity Speech in 2017, where he called for multidimensional representations of refugees and Muslims. Failure to achieve this would be “to lose out on an expansive idea of who we are, as individuals and as a community.” Amidst the government’s Hostile Environment policies, cinema stands to not only (re)establish this empathic connection with refugee communities but to expand representations of them.
Amin and his family’s arduous journeys are rendered in black-and-white, fragmentary sketches which move chaotically, charged with an urgency not to dwell within these spaces for too long. In contrast, the scenes above ground, which are more detached from the immediate trauma of these routes, are clear and technicolour. Rather than obscure the experiences of escape, this cinematic choice attempts to avoid refugees being defined by the routes they take. Indeed, Flee focuses its attention on how family and love can restore and recreate “home” for the refugee.
It is reunion with his family which remains at the centre of Amin’s concerns, and it is his older brother who encourages Amin to embrace his homosexuality.
Recalling his budding sexuality as a gay teen, Amin and Rasmussen joke that they idolised Jean-Claude Van Damme for different reasons: the latter for his macho strength, and the former for his good looks. This charming jibe brings levity to a gritty and devastating account. Spotlighting the light and dark of displacement, Amin’s multidimensional narrative circumvents making the refugee a mere object of pity.
In Sweden, Amin starts to openly express his sexuality. Against the electronic symphonies of Daft Punk’s Veridis Quo, Amin enters a gay club – a refreshingly uplifting scene which allows Amin to slow down and explore his identity, thawing the cold suddenness of his previous changing realities: passport, family history, physical home.
Earlier in the film, a song plays which laments: ‘Oh, my country [Afghanistan], you’ve lost your melody’. Amin is a man for whom a new “melody” is being tuned as he recreates home in Europe with his siblings and fiancé, who he so simply but evocatively describes as “reference points” in our “crazy lives”. The hope and beauty of creating home far away is captured in Amin and his fiancé’s closing embrace among the foliage of their shared domestic space.
You can go and watch Flee at the Ultimate Picture Palace in Oxford and Curzon.